When I was a college student interning for the editorial photographer David Edwards in Flagstaff, Arizona, one day Dave paused by a framed photograph at the top of his studio’s staircase and offered a up a bit of insight. The photograph was Sam Abell’s Red Bucket, and what Edwards (a man whose own work I admire greatly) marveled at almost daily was its layers. Many layers of life, immaculately assembled. A sum greater than its parts – no small feat.
Though intoxicated by the lives and work of editorial photographers like Edwards and Abell and though I felt certain that image-making was going to be an important part of my own life, when I graduated from university I wasn’t drawn to any kind of clear-cut path. The best solution for moving forward at the time seemed a literal one: it called for grabbing my bike and some camping gear and hightailing it out of the country with two of my best friends. When in doubt, roll out… and so we did.
We pedaled (and ate) our way over thousands of miles across Aotearoa, I had just turned 23, and I was back in Oceania for the sixth time. Yet in that moment I wasn’t keeping track of much (I barely knew that New Zealand was Aotearoa, or that there was an “Oceania” one might count comings to and from), and was utterly unaware that this massive sea of islands would become a home. From the middle of a great adventure but sensing the urge to know more, I squeaked out applications to graduate programs sketching out interests in my “other” love – archaeology. The place that offered me a spot was, quite fittingly, the University of Hawai’i.
Following a brief return to the desert, I made the move to the islands. Feeling like more than simply the stark geographical relocation that it most certainly was, at the time I also saw myself setting down the camera (photography) in order to raise a trowel (archaeology). In reality it turned out that nearly everything, in fact, had to be forgone in order to summit a mountain of reading – such is the story of the first year of graduate school! But most importantly a perennial curiosity about the past caused me to put my best foot forward and concentrate on learning everything I could about humanity’s remarkable journey and how it had come to be known.
Guided by the remarkable professor and advisor Michael Graves and a fantastic community of faculty at Manoa, school and reading sprouted interests, interests beget fieldwork, fieldwork inspired research, and research became life. All in all an experience informed and influenced by places and people in ways I hadn’t imagined in my wildest dreams. And along the way photography – now watered amply by anthropology and archaeology – began to sprout anew. I began to more clearly see something that I felt like I’d somehow known all along – that image-making can be the most beautiful of methods, a means by which anyone, and most especially those with questions, can inquire, be informed, and share aspects of the world around them. In a favorite phrase of Hunter S. Thompson, “Whamo!”
Anthropologists and archaeologists study human life and its myriad of expressions across time and place. Born to two anthropologists, I grew up experiencing the all-encompassing nature of the discipline firsthand – the closet thing we had to family vacations were field seasons (and I found this to be wonderful… they were longer). In a complementary vein, what initially attracted me to photography was the escape that it could constantly create. The camera was the perfect excuse to wander – it was a crystallizing cause to slow down and look around (or speed up and get past the next corner). Dynamism occurred when I saw that the foundations of anthropology and photography could be universally applied and interwoven – that the visual consideration of what it means to be human is at once simple, profound, and constant.
There is a mode of living which a number of great photographers have alluded to within their work and practices which has to do with the opening of the senses. My own impression is that its characteristics include unbreakable connections to moments, places, and time, heightened sensibilities toward light and life, and that such a mode not only short-circuits the irrelevant somehow but also taps into a reservoir of photographic ability and power that otherwise remains distant. I don’t claim any real familiarity with such a mode or to have ever fully engaged it, but in my own journeys I have stumbled across what I believe to be its tantalizing traces…
In writing Abell discusses the photographic life, just as Dorothea Lange speaks to the potential of the truly visual life. Ideas from other sorts of image-makers cross-cut – for instance Henri Cartier-Bresson’s pursuit of what has come to be known as the decisive moment, recognizing “facts” and simultaneously organizing forms for their visual expression, is distinct again yet also shares common elements. These individuals are channeling themselves through cameras by different degrees and manners, but in artful, learned, meaningful, and important ways. Yet eventually they all supersede the machine – the camera falls away and it dawns on us that what has been going on, and what very likely matters most, is celebrating how we each look at, and see, the world.
Living Exposed aspires to be an experiment along these very lines, an effort at exploring and engaging how life and cameras can harmonize. After lengthly percolation, the project was commenced in its present form in the months building up to my thirtieth birthday. As much of my past decade has been focused on studying ideas, I hope the next ten years will privilege using them in the world. And as helpful as labels are to understand, relate, and build knowledge, I also hope that Living Exposed proves adept at occasionally defying definition so that it might roam more freely, striking out in new directions when the chance arises. Like the Red Bucket photograph hanging in Edward’s studio quietly reminds us, the finest things in this world somehow equal more than the sum of their parts.